Sunday, May 1, 2011

Hernandez v. Texas: 57 years ago today

57 years ago today the U.S. Supreme Court released its landmark decision in Hernandez v. Texas. Until this significant civil rights ruling it was unclear whether the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment provided protection from the discriminatory impact of state legislation within racial groups. Up until this ruling state actors were of the view that the objective of this provision was limited to discriminatory applications of law as between Negros - as we were referred to then - and whites.

The facts in Hernandez were simple and powerful. Pete Hernandez, a Mexican American, was charged with first degree murder of his employer. He lived in an area in Texas, where not a single Mexican-American had been selected to sit on a jury in the past twenty-five years. He was tried by an all white jury and found guilty of first degree murder. His lawyers - all of whom were Mexican-American challenged his conviction under the 14th Amendment. Their argument was cogent and concise. Peter Hernandez was entitled to be tried by a jury of which Mexican-Americans like himself are at least entitled to participate. They demonstrated with the state's own records that Mexican-Americans were effectively excluded from jury duty. They argued that although Mexican-Americans were white they were nonetheless denied the equal protection and benefit of the law on account of their Mexican-American heritage compared to white Texans.

The State of Texas argued that Mexican-Americans are white and the 14th Amendment is limited to addressing inequality in the law as between whites and Negros. In addition, it argued that their jury selection process did not in fact rely on any racial considerations. It just so happened that Mexican-Americans were not selected to be on juries.

The U.S. Supreme Court led by Chief Justice Earl Warren rectified this narrow and most unfortunate reasoning. The court was unanimous in finding that the Equal Protection Clause of 14th Amendment was not limited to discriminatory laws affecting Negros and whites and that the exclusion of Mexican-Americans from jury duty was not accidental and was indeed a denial of their constitutional right to equal protection.


What lessons are we to take from this landmark decision ? The first lesson is that the problem of race is deeply rooted and entrenched in American society and goes beyond blacks and whites. So deeply rooted and entrenched is the race problem that it distorts or impairs reason and common sense. The second lesson is that it is truly comforting that most observers - including Texans - can readily see the perverseness of the state's position today.

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